Amy Head’s third work of fiction is a slim collection of twelve linked stories. As in her debut collection Tough (2013), the setting is the South Island, but instead of the wild West Coast – past and present – the stories in Signs of Life are all set in a Christchurch still shuddering with aftershocks.
An epigraph from Elizabeth Knox sets the tone: ‘I say this in a city living in memory and expectation, in ghost streets and dream buildings.’ In the opening story, ‘Biographical Details’, the widowed Bette has had to abandon the family home once ‘cluttered with albums, cookbooks and fossils’. All the possessions she’s salvaged are housed in a shipping container, parked in the driveway of the new unit she’s forced to buy.
There were similar containers all over the city nowadays. People cut holes in the side and sold coffees out of them. There was an entire mall in containers. Containers lined the road around the base of the cliffs to catch falling rocks… [Someone] might drive through their city and say, ‘Did a ship throw up around here?’
Bette is the grandmother of twenty-something Flick, who appears in a number of the stories and is the collection’s central character. In the first story she’s helping Bette reply to a PR request from the shipping company: ‘What was stored in her container and why?’ All Bette has left of her married life is in there, ‘her most important memories, protected’. By the last story the boarded-up house is still standing and about to be sold; Flick discovers a rough sleeper is squatting there. ‘Great position,’ says Luke, Flick’s ex. ‘Looking straight into the red zone.’
A vulnerable Flick navigates the city, moving between short-term jobs and short-term relationships. Quakes and aftershocks destabilise her: ‘Familiar spike of tension in her veins. A beam in the ceiling creaked once, twice, and the juddering stopped.’ In ‘Emergency Procedures’ she remembers her childhood in Bette’s house, ‘comfortable in a world of possibilities’. This story, like many of the others in Signals of Life, reminds us of the then-and-now nature of the earthquakes, how links with the past are broken.
Flick is on a bus when the ‘worst earthquake’ hits: she lies ‘jolting with the metal, the wheels and the legs’. When she’s able to stand, she sees
a new reality performing a detailed impression of the old one. Everything seemed to be in its place at first. Then she began to notice differences. Bricks were scattered across the footpath further along the road. The power poles leading back towards the student union building, where she’d been issued with her ID card less than an hour earlier, didn’t line up. Liquid silt emerged from several drains and spread rapidly. Silence, like a held breath. Then everyone started talking.
Everyone talking is an essential element in this collection, exploring the collective experience of people in Christchurch. In the book’s funny title story, a man named Tony is recovering from a seizure, only to discover he has been declared dead by WINZ, and needs to apply for a ‘Certificate of Existence’. (‘Wouldn’t you send a letter out?’ Tony asks his officious case manager.) Online he tries to make an appointment at Internal Affairs, but he has to ‘indicate the purpose of the visit’ and there is ‘no box for the undead, not at the local office’.
At the doctor’s office:
Tony stared at the bone model on the shelf behind his doctor’s head. He tried to convince himself that under the flesh, his hand was the same as that, and that his innards sat in much the same way as the plastic organs in the flayed torso. As he sat there, his heart was jolting beneath his ribs – electrified. It wasn’t easy. His mind was haughty and rejected his offal.
A number of stories explore that secret ‘electrified’ life of its traumatised citizens. In ‘Outreach’ Gerald is a Community Patrol officer answering calls from ‘frontier dwellers’ and exploring ‘the cracked and disintegrating seal of the abandoned road’. His own nerves are frayed; he sees potential disaster everywhere. After each aftershock ‘his mind wouldn’t allow reason in’ and he chews over past crimes and disasters, as unsettled as the ground.
Flick also experiences paranoia. On a run in ‘Self-Defence’ she’s afraid of a truck that may or may not be following her, of potential assailants in the trees, of what might happen in an earthquake – pinecones falling; losing her balance and breaking her arm; the ground giving way beneath her. ‘A hollow had formed in her abdomen. Apprehension had leaked into it steadily.’ Even in nature she relives the city’s deaths:
Stumps and roots in her path were sprayed fluorescent orange and white to stop people tripping, though some had faded. Like the paint on cars, buses and buildings in the city; after the worst quake. Scrawls to say a building was clear, or a numeral.
Unsurprisingly, much of Flick’s ongoing storyline reveals her as despondent, and some of her point-of-view stories, with their fixation on the mundane, slow the pace of the collection, despite Head’s adept use elsewhere of visceral imagery. Flick is prone to unwise decisions – for example, a misread ‘romance’ and horrible sexual encounter with a trainee architect from Auckland, who’s engaging in his own form of disaster tourism. She has this ‘heavy feeling dragging me down’, she tells her counsellor in ‘The Consolations of Reality’, and then goes on to drink too much at Luke’s wedding, feeling ‘no control over her own destiny’.
Signs of Life suggests some possibilities of hope, from the geraniums blooming outside Bette’s new unit to Flick’s spur-of-the-moment announcement that she might return to university to study architecture herself, though this will mean a move away from Christchurch. The quakes have forced Flick, and everyone else here, out of their familiar world and into one of upheaval. The stories form stepping stones, apparently disjointed but leading somewhere – in this case, to a profound insight into a city in the aftermath of disaster.